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Beyond MDGs 2015: The search for new objectives, new goals and new measures.

Recently on the Humanosphere blog there was a call for comment on a paper, titled ‘How can a post-2015 agreement drive real change’, written by Duncan Green, Stephen Hale and Matthew Lockwood of Oxfam. So I took up the challenge to read the paper and I am offering up this feedback.

Defining Poverty
First, its time to stop with the global strategies, initiatives, imperatives, goals, objectives etc. Poverty, though common across the goals in its experience of inadequate resources for daily living, is by its complexity and locale-specific nature, not amenable to ‘global targets’. Any global target means that variations across locales disappear and the outcomes seems somewhat meaningless. Furthermore, and most importantly, the people setting these targets are usually not the ones who have to meet them, nor are they the ones who will be among the counted when these targets get evaluated.

Authoring Poverty
Second, it would be beyond wonderful if more of these papers get written by people in countries where these targets will be implemented and by in-country people who will have to implement the programs through which these targets will be met. Included in these papers should be the voices of the poor people whose lives these policies are supposed to change.

Aid and the Environment
Third, there is a significant cost to the environment (the focus of MDG #7) created by the aid industry. As well-meaning, well-educated and sometimes well-prepared development workers, finance ministers, UN staff etc etc zip around the world, they consume millions of plastic bottles of water in places where plastic is not recycled and leave an ever-growing carbon footprint in their wake. Given the state of technology, there should be less need for travel of the rich and more space for the voices of the poor. Until this happens, the business of aid will be increasingly one of self-perpetuating indulgence and less about helping poor people.

Rich-Poor Country Relationships
As the authors note, there is little evidence of the kind of rich-poor country strategies like technology transfer, trade, finance etc that could really make an impact on global poverty. Instead, it is the gift of cash, stuff and people that poor countries get. Furthermore, the ‘customization’ of the MDGs by many of the countries reinforce the need for local governments to set their own goals and not follow some guideline set and monitored by people far away: the so-called 'international community'.

The Politics of Poverty
The politics of poverty and aid (the latter needs to be tossed into the garbage pile of post-colonial, neo-liberal, capitalist failures), and the geopolitics that influence the relationships between rich and poor countries are more significant than any aid strategy. The USAID is explicit that their aid strategy must be in sync with their security strategy. And their security strategy seems to include supporting leaders who rape and pillage the national treasuries of their countries – money that could build the kind of infrastructure that aid wont build but is so integral to the alleviation of poverty. Of course, once these criminals deposit such funds in their offshore accounts, aid fills the gap; and often by avoiding the government sector all together as ‘civil society’ is the Cinderella of the aid game.

The Business of Aid
The business of aid seems to be an end in itself: meetings, conferences, conventions, consultations, site visits, photo ops with donations, writing of papers, and on and on. It has also proved to be great fodder for bestsellers. In many countries aid is its own sub-economy: hotels, maids, drivers, consultants, and speakers at the endless meetings where the same people say the same things – driving the hospitality and service industries of many nations, with trends in where meetings get located based on making successful transitions within the aid space. (Scared of Lagos but longing for Addis).

Self-perpetuating Aid
The authors propose ‘the best way for the international community to encourage pro-poor change’. I would suggest that the time has come to leave people alone, except to help in case of emergency. And the goal should be to work oneself out of a job. Noone will deny the romantic ideas attached to going around the world ‘helping people’ that perhaps began in the adventures of the Scottish medical missionary Dr. David Livingstone ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume") and continue through the passionate followers of Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. But I am reminded of how the system of apartheid fell: People around the world in their own countries pushing long and hard for change in solidarity with efforts on the ground in-country led by local leaders. (Noone was flying into South Africa for AIDS meetings serviced by prostitutes, instead political activists were running out). Perhaps the aid industry could study the anti-apartheid movement as a model for how to stay home and effect change far away.

Poverty Assumptions
The assumption that poor people in foreign lands NEED our help is the assumption we must challenge as the international community (whoever that is) start thinking of new ‘targets’. Instead of giving poor people what our theoretical frameworks, randomized controlled studies, and consultation with Ivy-educated energetic young experts ( that tend to populate consultant firms) say they need, perhaps we could set up frameworks for them to tell us what they need from us (I'm thinking YouTube, Skype, Google). We may choose whether or not to give it to them, but at least they would have had their say.

The Study of Poverty
As for the authors' ‘we need  more research’ conclusions. I beg to differ.  The key being “the substantial investment of money and brainpower in both the MDGs and the global debate over what should replace them" (p.17). That they state the existing research has provided so few answers is a sign that perhaps more research is not what we need. Nor is the need to spend all this time, energy, money and carbon creating new agenda items to write about and discuss in far-flung meetings in fancy spaces for the next x numbers of years. Yes, some countries may find that their tourism infrastructure may suffer the lack of peripatetic aid professionals but I am sure they will find other economic engines to replace them.

Eliminating Poverty
The abject poverty targeted by the MDGs was created, and is maintained, by well-understood systems of power and wealth that reside in the countries that give aid. These are systems that few in the ‘international community’ are willing to change; including many in the aid business who would have no more travel to exotic locations for cool meetings with really interesting and smart people. (Have they heard of Skype?). Until they are ready to do that, they should leave the victims of their policies alone. I think they've done enough. Big goals for years ending in 0 or 5 may make us feel better before they even hit the ground, but that alone should make them suspect.

For an updated critique of the SDGs see 'The 169 Commandments', The Economist, March 28, 2015.


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